I took a look at a pre-production sample of the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5 back in April. Although my time with the DMC-GF3's successor was limited, it was long enough to leave me impressed. So, I was excited at the chance to run a full test on a finished production unit.
This compact camera with an interchangeable lens is on sale now for around £500.
Compact system camera
The GF5 is one of the neatest compact system cameras you can buy. It's much smaller than you'd imagine from the pictures. It's also more compact -- and about £100 cheaper on list price -- than its sibling, the Lumix GX1, which earned a five-star review in December last year.
The body itself isn't much bigger than a regular compact snapper -- about the same as a pack of cards -- and the motorised 14-42mm kit lens adds just 26mm to the body when powered down. That's quite a contrast to most CSCs in which a relatively compact body is paired with a chunky lens, ultimately taking up not much less space in your bag than a consumer dSLR.
There's no optical viewfinder, so all composing is done through the rear-mounted 3-inch touchscreen. This is one of the best touchscreens you'll come across, which the underlying firmware puts to very good use. As well as the common tap-to-focus (and optional tap-to-shoot), you can drag your finger up and down to zoom and use it to change the strength of various adjustments.
The menus are bold and easy to use and the GF5 introduces a range of effects that you'd more commonly see in smart phone apps like Instagram. These let you apply processing and toy camera-type effects, add specular highlights or isolate a particular colour in your image. Pros who are tempted to buy a GF5 as a more portable alternative to their dSLR might not use them too often, but they're neat add-ons for hobby snappers.
Panasonic should be complimented for the quality of the GF5's on-screen information, which is comprehensive but never overwhelming. Set it to aperture priority, for instance, then adjust the aperture setting using the rear-mounted scroll wheel, and it displays a matching shutter speed gauge that shows you what effect you're having. If you then refine it by tweaking the exposure compensation (+/-3EV in 1/3EV steps), it trims it yet further.
Likewise, if you call up the histogram overlay to check that you won't be burning your highlights or losing darker detail in the shadows, you can position it wherever you want on the screen so that it doesn't obscure your view.
I used the 14-42mm powered kit lens, which has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at wide angle and f/5.6 at full telephoto. The camera's Micro Four Thirds sensor has a crop factor of 2x, making the lens equivalent to 28-84mm on a conventional 35mm camera.
The closest focusing distance on this lens is a slightly disappointing 20cm, but that shouldn't put you off using it for macro photography. It's quick to find focus and the level of detail it delivers when paired with the GF5 is among the best I have encountered.
Even the smallest feature is clearly picked out. While the depth of field may be a little longer than you would sometimes want in a macro shot, the focus falls off to a very attractive bokeh effect -- or blurring away from the point of focus -- drawing the eye to the subject.
Panasonic produces dedicated macro lenses for its G system, but even using this regular kit lens, the stamen in the image below are very clearly rendered. The texture and colour of the petals behind it can't be faulted.
The GF5 has a 13-megapixel sensor, delivering 12.1-megapixel stills (4,000x3,000 pixels). I performed my tests in aperture priority mode, shooting raw and JPEG files side by side, and used the in-camera JPEGs for analysis.
Control over extreme changes in luminance was very well maintained throughout my tests. Even in instances where I'd usually expect to see some colour fringing against fine detail and sharp contrasts (typical in lesser lenses that don't quite focus all of the incoming light accurately), the kit lens did an excellent job of keeping everything in check.
The leaves on the end of the branches in the image below are accurately reproduced, even though they overlay an overcast sky. There's no evidence of fringing on the branches themselves, despite the GF5 using the darker gravestone in the foreground as a metering point.
There seems to be very little you can throw at the GF5 that it won't take in its stride. The image below has a limited colour palette, with the elderflowers predominantly white, sitting on a field of green leaves. Even so, it has clearly picked out individual petals in every part of the image, clearly separating each flower from those around it while retaining a high level of detail in the underlying leaves.
In more balanced images, it does an excellent job of extracting as much colour as possible from the scene before it. Overcast skies were given depth and variation in many of my tests. When there was a narrow break in the clouds, it did an excellent job of capturing faint blue, giving life to otherwise potentially dull images.
It's very quick to find focus (0.09 seconds according to Panasonic's tests). In my experience, individual shot-to-shot times took less than a second when shooting fine JPEGs and raw files simultaneously. Using a Class 10 memory card, the buffer filled after three frames when shooting this way. Clearing sufficient memory for the next shot took a little less than 2 seconds. Your experience may vary, depending on the speed of your memory card and your compression settings.
Burst mode will fire off four frames per second. Although Panasonic claims the maximum number of shots is four before the camera needs to clear the buffer, in my tests it achieved five when shooting raw, without associated JPEGs.
Focus is maintained evenly across the frame, with details in the corners and along each edge comparing favourably with those at the centre, for a very balanced result.
Low light photography
Its low light performance was particularly impressive in my tests. Results achieved at ISO 6,400 are what you'd expect to see from other cameras at ISO 1,600. Dropping it to ISO 3,200 produced the kind of images I'd expect a conventional compact camera to deliver at around ISO 400.
This gives you enormous flexibility and means you can shoot without resorting to the pop-up flash at manageable shutter speeds (around 1/15 second, which you can hand-hold if you have something to lean against) in very low light conditions.
Even the extended ISO 12,800 setting produced accurate colours, albeit with a heightened level of noise, for an extremely impressive low light performance overall.
The GF5 shoots high-definition video at 1,920x1,080 pixels, 30 frames per second progressive, or 1,280x720 pixels at the same frame rate. If you're shooting quick movies for web use, you can also switch to 640x480 pixels, again at 30fps.
There's a wind-cut filter to reduce background noise, which can be set to auto or off. I set this to auto in my tests, but the sound of a passing breeze is still clearly audible on much of my captured footage.
Its suppression of the noise of the zoom motor was more effective, but it's still audible if you listen carefully. Otherwise, the soundtrack was cleanly recorded. Quiet, distant sounds are easy to make out.
Image quality is excellent, with smooth, unstepped transitions to cater for changing luminance. Colour was reproduced accurately and there were no problems capturing complex scenes, such as the walk through the pea field in the sample below.
The GF5 is one of the best compact system cameras you can buy right now. The small size and light weight count enormously in its favour, but it's the quality of its output that really sells it.
Throughout my tests, it consistently turned in first-class results under a wide range of lighting conditions. Well-illuminated colours are vivid, shots featuring overcast skies are more subtle and the low light performance can't be faulted.
The short time I had with a pre-production build of the GF5 in April was enough to leave me impressed. This more extensive test has done nothing to change that opinion. If you're after a truly compact, flexible, high-performing compact system camera, look this way.